Adulting Better with Adult Development: See It, Feel It, Do It

“Adulting” is a silly but catchy term that means engaging in the behaviors of a responsible adult (holding down a job, making monthly payments, and overall physical self-care). The “Urban Dictionary” includes the following:  “…responsibilities expected of fully developed individuals.” From this perspective adulting basically means maturity.

Common wisdom holds that people who use the term are young people who are not able to do adult things. I disagree. In my experience, most adults occasionally feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, or like frauds who are “faking it until they make it.” Whether occasionally or all the time, no amount of “adulting checklists” can address the underlying cause of the adultus interruptus pandemic, but that does not mean there is no way forward.

There is a simple 3-step solution that you can begin right now. I call it the “See It, Feel It, Do It” path to maturity. I should warn you that although each step is “simple,” there is a good amount of courage involved in taking this path.

The “See It, Feel It, Do It” path I am offering comes from developmental psychology – that’s the branch of psychology that is all about maturity, all about the “developed” in “fully developed individuals.” You probably know about this field already. Most of you have heard of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” the pyramid with “Physiology Needs” at the bottom and “Self-Actualization Needs” at the top (Maslow added “Self-Transcendence Needs” above this in later versions).

Figure 1:  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Original Version; Budrix at CleanPNG)

The levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy line up well with the levels of development in other models. There is widespread agreement that the height of childhood development and the beginning of adult development are the same: to become a socialized human (the “Belongingness” needs).

Basically, this level is where you identify with your religion or nation or race, and then conform to that group’s norms. The belief in something larger than yourself is the price you pay, but it is also beneficial (we get a lot when we join with others). It is also a necessary level to grow through. Would you trust an adult who cannot experience remorse, guilt, or regret? I wouldn’t. You learn all of that at this level. (This is different from the shame we can experience before becoming socialized, which is less about feeling bad that others are mad or sad, and more about getting called out by others.)

There is also widespread agreement that this is no longer the best definition of maturity. After all, what is expected of adults now is that they are no longer “authored” by their group, that they can be the author, to “self-author” their lives. If guilt and remorse are the height of your learning experiences, it’s probably time to move on. Not by going backwards and becoming selfish, but by moving forwards into self-reliance (which includes being reliable-but-not-beholden to others).

It is not enough to faithfully follow the norms of any group in order to be considered mature. Now, you must “move the locus of control from outside to inside,” as one theory puts it. Or another version, where you get “self-esteem training” (as if a weekend training can help you dissolve your ego-identity and craft a new one). Adulting is about more than just behaviors, it is about the thoughts and feelings required for development from one level to the next. You need a new way of making sense of the world. And while the steps on this path may be simple, the courage required may not be!

The field has been around for a century and has influenced your education, especially how and when to introduce new concepts to young minds. Adult developmental psychology is less well known, but it is as robust, valid, and reliable a way of helping adults grow and change as childhood development has been for children. (Check out Robert Kegan for more.)

Rather than show you how they line up in theory, I want to give you an “inside-out” view of traveling through these levels. Like all things, it begins with awareness. In general, you must be aware of something before you can have any feelings about it, and you must reckon with those feelings before you can do something about it. This seems pretty obvious. And that sequence is the same one we see people going through when they grow from any level of development to the next.

You must be able to see a new way before you can feel into the dilemma of that new way. You must weigh the costs of remaining as-is against the costs of change before you can consider heading down that path. And you must accept those costs of doing things in the new way before you actually behave accordingly. This is why “walking your talk” is often difficult. (Just as we only say, “That’s a good question” when we don’t know the answer, we only discuss “Walking our talk” when it is not easy – when we are torn, when we need courage.)

Here is an example that illustrates See It, Feel It, Do It from the inside-out: Everyone has had difficult conversations. And most of us have had the experience where, two days later, we smack our forehead and think, “Oh crap!  What I should have said was…” […insert pithy comeback here]. This is a heroic fantasy and we all do it.

Perhaps for the first time, you are seeing something new. A new perspective on the possibilities that you might take during conflict. But the process needn’t end there; you might find yourself thinking of your pithy comeback the next day, and then the next hour, and then… well, you get the idea.

Should your development continue, you will find yourself thinking of what you can say during the conversation. Now you are developing. You will feel differently this time, because unlike your heroic fantasy of what you should have said, now you can actually say something. You are beginning to feel both sides of a dilemma because you are facing the dilemma. It’s not just an idea; the dragon is before you! You will have to weigh the costs of speaking your truth (or feelings) against the costs of not speaking your truth (or feelings).

[And if you are truly engaged in “adulting” as part of a process of maturing, then you might also be making the above distinction between your feelings and the truth, no matter how much your postmodern teacher told you that these are equivalent. They are not.]

Usually the costs of speaking up are to the relationship (rocking the boat; being selfish; alienating them), and the costs of not speaking up are to your integrity (I disagree; this isn’t me; my principles are different). We are torn by these dilemmas. Developmental psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance,” but it is actually a highly emotional engagement with two sides of yourself.

That is what it feels like to leave a less mature self and create a more mature self. And there are indeed costs for doing this. You might lose certain relationships as you renegotiate them into a larger sense of purpose, based on principles instead of mutual agreements. You might lose your community, which may not be able to “hold” this new version of you. (The best relationships and communities not only “hold” this process, they have methods for encouraging it. They recognize you, or re-cognize, “to know again.”)

During this time, you will begin to anticipate what you might say during an upcoming difficult conversation. When you realize that the costs for your old way are too high, you steel your nerves and construct what you will say the next time. Do not be discouraged if it takes you more than a few times of planning to actually engage. (Practicing in a mirror or with a partner can help.)

Willpower is of little use. Taking a learning or “Growth Mindset” is the right approach. “What can I learn about reality itself here? Perhaps this relationship/community can ‘hold’ my new self? Maybe it’s still worth it if they cannot?” When you do this, you are much more likely to succeed because you will be using your neocortex (thinking) instead of your limbic system (feeling).

For those of you who have done this, you were probably shocked that the proverbial “other shoe” never dropped; the relationship was fine, the community continued to embrace you. Occasionally the worst-case scenario does happen – but even here, living by your principles was likely more important to you than those limiting relationships. When self-respect is more important than maintaining relationships, you have begun to shift from Feel It to Do It.

Living by your “adulting” self means Self-Authoring your life. It means that, even though you may grieve the loss of certain relationships (or aspects of those relationships), it is better to take full responsibility over your life (because nobody else can). Adulting means having the courage to risk relationships on behalf of principles.

This way of looking at “adulting” puts it squarely from Maslow’s “Belongingness” needs to the “Self-Esteem” (aka, “Achievement”) needs. From orienting to relationships to orienting to respect. Respecting yourself, being able to create and achieve goals, to maintain healthy boundaries – these are the first principles of adulting. They make keeping your schedule, paying bills, building a career (which starts with holding a job), and all other surface features of adulting much easier to achieve.

Here, I have attempted to use a common life experience to illustrate an inside-out view of true adulting using adult developmental psychology. And not just the theory, but the practices in which growing adults can engage that stimulate or further this process. At each level of your development, you can apply this See It, Feel It, Do It method. It is something you can actually experience, this process that researchers dryly refer to as “making subject an object of your awareness.”

But forget all that; forget all the jargon and the surface level advice – just See It (identify a new way); then Feel It(weigh and accept the costs); then Do It (take the learning mindset, be the new you). You’ll be adulting in no time.